THE DOZENS: BILL FRISELL by Eric Novod

Bill Frisell by Michael Wilson

As unassumingly as Bill Frisell presents himself in his everyday life is as fiery and unabashedly bold he is with his musical choices. A stylistic chameleon once all-too-appropriately deemed the “Clark Kent of jazz,” his fascination with and dedication to collective improvisation and his early training with Dale Bruning and Jim Hall imparts a jazz approach to most everything Frisell does – regardless of whether it sounds like jazz, or country, or folk, or rock, or a fusion of all, or none of the above. But the truth of the matter is that stylistic categorization hardly matters in his case, and in fact, it almost surely inhibits his personal mission. Frisell once summarized his own musical worldview thusly:

“One of the things I get off on most in music is finding these connections where you can’t tell if the music is black or white or blues or country, where the labels all just sort of melt away and you can’t tell where it’s coming from. And that’s sort of been driving me…” (All Things Considered, NPR, September 19, 2002)

A career-long exploration of American music, centered on jazz but not bound by its borders, has resulted in one of the more fascinating and centrally important discographies of the last quarter-century. Along the way, Frisell has revealed musical truths never articulated quite so simply and succinctly and yet so complex and richly tangled at the same time. In the process he’s developed a steadfast loyalty from the music world rarely granted to a risk-taker of his magnitude. Reviews of Frisell’s music in recent years usually pass completely over “good” or “bad” and move straight towards exploring what and how Frisell is attempting to uncover – an ultimate sign of musical respect.

These twelve tracks attempt to display the vast reach of Frisell’s career, concentrating mostly on his work as a leader. A tune from his newest release, Disfarmer, was recently featured as a “Song of the Day” at jazz.com, and proves that Frisell’s talents in creating instant music history have likely not yet reached their creative peak.


Bill Frisell: Throughout

Track

Throughout

Artist

Bill Frisell (acoustic and electric guitars)

CD

In Line (ECM 837 019-2 CD)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (acoustic and electric guitars).

Composed by Bill Frisell

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Recorded: Talent Studio, Oslo, August 1982

Frisell

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Bill Frisell embarked on a freelancing career in the late 1970s that found him performing in Boston, New York, and Belgium, the last of which he moved to briefly in 1978. While gigging throughout Europe, Frisell met ECM founder/producer Manfred Eicher, who, impressed by the young guitarist, invited him to become an unofficial “house guitarist” for the label in the late 1970s, appearing on such releases as Eberhard Weber’s Fluid Rustle and Later That Evening, Arild Andersen’s A Molde Concert, Paul Motian’s Psalm, and Jan Garbarek’s Paths, Prints. With these experiences in hand, Eicher invited Frisell to record as a leader for the ECM label in August of 1982, which resulted in the guitarist’s debut recording, In Line.

A lot can be learned of Frisell’s method and style from these initial recordings. To begin with, with the exception of bassist Arild Andersen’s accompaniment on five of the nine tracks, In Line is a solo performance, or, more accurately, multiple layers of Frisell’s guitar. On the bass-less “Throughout,” the guitarist sets a high precedent for his career-long concentration on mood and texture, achieved here with his combination of minimalist acoustic and electric guitars, the use of volume, delay and chorus pedals and his dichotomous presentation of the sheer beauty and simplicity of a folk-song melody and the presence of mysteriously dissonant intervals and tone clusters.

Even when playing along with himself, there’s a palpable playfulness and sense of spontaneity here – the joy of sailing into uncharted waters with the tapes rolling – that’s also a dependable feature of the Frisell experience.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Bill Frisell: Lonesome

Track

Lonesome

Group

The Bill Frisell Band

CD

Lookout For Hope (ECM 833495)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (guitar), Hank Roberts (cello), Kermit Driscoll (bass), Joey Baron (drums).

Composed by Bill Frisell

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Recorded: Power Station, NYC, March 1987

Bill_frisell--lookout_for_hope

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Between the release of his debut recording, In Line, and the date of this session (early ’87), Bill Frisell busily recorded with Chet Baker, Bob Moses, Tim Berne, Paul Motian, Marc Johnson, John Zorn, Paul Bley, and released his first full-band record, an ECM outing entitled Rambler that features Kenny Wheeler and Paul Motian. However, Frisell truly embarked on establishing a career as a leader with this first steady group, comprising the diversely creative lineup of cellist Hank Roberts, electric bassist Kermit Driscoll, and drummer Joey Baron. Upon first listen, one can immediately tell that Frisell had found his early musical foils here. Both the serious technical talents and collective senses of humor of his “Band” mates enhance his compositional and improvisational nuances.

“Lonesome” is an enduring Frisell composition consisting of two six-bar “A” sections, an eight-bar “B” section, and a concluding, slightly-expanded eight-bar “A” section. Frisell’s sweet folk melody, played on acoustic guitar, is peppered with metallic percussion (amidst a country-rock brushes groove) from Baron, modestly vital support from Driscoll, and some attractively discordant trills from Roberts. Frisell’s brief improvisation features some time spent exploring mood and texture, as well as a few stand-alone bop lines that remind us, amidst the multitude of sonic goings-on, that the man can play. This tune has been performed by many of Frisell’s various group throughout the years, yet few retain the charm of this original version.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Bill Frisell: Hard Plains Drifter

Track

Hard Plains Drifter

Group

The Bill Frisell Band

CD

Before We Were Born (Elektra 60843)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (guitar), Hank Roberts (cello), Kermit Driscoll (bass), Joey Baron (drums).

Composed by Bill Frisell. Produced and Arranged by John Zorn

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Recorded: September 1988

Frisell

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

John Zorn has called on Bill Frisell to fill the guitar seat in many of his groups for upwards of 25 years now – beginning with Frisell’s contribution to Zorn’s The Big Gundown in 1984-85. Through the years, Frisell was a member of Zorn’s thrash-metal-jazz-and-everything-else group Naked City, performed on many of Zorn’s Filmworks releases, and contributed solo acoustic guitar readings of Zorn’s world-music compositions on Masada Guitars.

This thirteen-plus minute whirlwind track is one of their most collaborative efforts. Penned by Frisell and produced and arranged by Zorn, the Bill Frisell Band moves through every imaginable genre here, playing heavy metal for a few bars, moving to a country groove, then swinging behind a guitar solo before moving on to a brand new set of stylistic vignettes. For a real treat, check out the chart for the entire tune in Frisell’s Songbook – you’ll find that there are 38 sections to this tune that are all briefly notated with musical lines/chord changes and all-capitalized stylistic commands (for example: 28. FREE QUARTET / 29. SOLO / 30. MEMPHIS GROOVE / 31. REGGAE / 32. NEW ORLEANS / 33. THRASH… GO CRAZY). It’s surely the most challenging and unique track in the Frisell discography – and a tour-de-force documentation of the thriving relationship of two of jazz’s renegade composers/performers.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Bill Frisell: Rag

Track

Rag

Artist

Bill Frisell (guitar)

CD

Live (Gramavision 79504)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (guitar), Kermit Driscoll (bass), Joey Baron (drums).

Composed by Bill Frisell

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Recorded: Terceros Encuentros de Nueva Musica Teatro Lope de Vega, Sevilla, Spain, October 27, 1991

Frisell

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Even though Bill Frisell had been performing with Joe Lovano in Paul Motian’s legendary piano-less trio since the mid-1980s, he had rarely assembled trios of his own before this European live release featuring three-quarters of the Bill Frisell Band. Since this release, the guitar trio has become an elemental, if not quite dominant, aspect of Frisell’s career, from this initial offering to his other fertile collaborations with Viktor Krauss and Jim Keltner, Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, Ron Carter and Paul Motian, and the newly emerged trio of drummer Rudy Royston and violinist/violist Eyvind Kang, a long-time collaborator, .

Because Frisell, Driscoll and Baron had been performing together for upwards of ten years at the time of this live recording, group cohesion is already amazingly high – each player is simultaneously leaving space and cleverly jabbing back in throughout one of Frisell’s most jovial compositions. One can picture Joey Baron’s trademark ear-to-ear grin while listening to this track, whether he’s swinging on his ride, marching on his snare, quickly choking his cymbals, or playing grooves on the rims of his drums, all of which occurs within the span of any fifteen seconds on “Rag.” The real treat is listening to Kermit Driscoll’s reaction to Frisell’s improvisation, however. It seems he’s comfortable enough to strip away whatever he would normally play in order to leave all options open to follow Frisell’s every unpredictable twist and turn, seamlessly maneuvering through the major-to-minor section shifts, 4/4 to 3/4 rhythm shifts, and the brilliantly bent run of seconds (as in intervals) at the tune’s crisscross conclusion.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Bill Frisell: Strange Meeting

Track

Strange Meeting

Artist

Bill Frisell (guitar)

CD

This Land (Elektra 79316)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (guitar), Don Byron (clarinet), Billy Drewes (alto sax), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Kermit Driscoll (bass), Joey Baron (drums).

Composed by Bill Frisell

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Recorded: October, 1992

Albumcoverbillfrisell-thisland

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Bill Frisell’s pair of recordings from 1992, a wide-ranging collection of covers entitled Have a Little Faith and this set of original compositions, This Land, present a conscious departure away from the ECM sound that dominated Frisell’s early years and a step towards a more organic, traditionally assembled acoustic group. There’s a unavoidable emphasis on unearthing the riches of Americana on these two recordings, whether spanning the American songbook on Have a Little Faith (he covers Aaron Copland, Stephen Foster, Madonna, Sonny Rollins, Bob Dylan and John Hiatt, among others), or the compositional focus, American West artwork, and album title itself on This Land. Frisell was never bound by the strictness of a single genre, but with these two outings, he seems to dive headfirst into accepting the role of an Americana experimenter, inextricably linking jazz with country, rock, folk, and blues styles and already accomplishing what most struggle with when combining genres – forming a cohesive, identifiable personal style.

“Strange Meeting” is a dark, loping groove in C-minor that can be studied theoretically for its compositional value yet be immediately accessible to non-musicians for its immediate ease and clarity as a mood statement – an important dichotomy that hints at the growing crossover popularity of Frisell’s music. Note the tension-inducing space left by the drums, the syncopated bass-line that lands on beat one on the “B” section, and the patience required by all players to establish texture through horn layering before Frisell begins to improvise.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Paul Motian Trio: Misterioso

Track

Misterioso

Group

Paul Motian Trio

CD

Sound of Love (Winter and Winter 8)

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Musicians:

Paul Motian (drums), Bill Frisell (guitar), Joe Lovano (tenor sax).

Composed by Thelonious Monk

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Recorded: Village Vanguard, NYC, June 1995

Frisell

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

During the first week of 2009, Motian, Frisell, and Lovano just completed their annual two-week run at the Village Vanguard. It's amazing to think that this group, originally documented in 1984 on their debut record, It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago [ECM], has existed for twenty-five years -- until, that is, you listen to their frighteningly high level of musical mind-reading. Bass-less and certainly not bound to a steady, consistent ride-beat from Motian, these three musicians explore the intersection of melody, harmony and rhythm as freely and beautifully as any jazz trio ever has.

Their stunning ballad readings and renditions of Paul Motian’s underrated compositions can yield another dozens-sized list of worthy tracks here, but I’ve never seen the group without hearing an extended rendition of a Monk tune, and “Misterioso” seems to be the favorite choice. This live take from the middle of this group’s recorded history is about as “straight-ahead” as the group gets – Motian is steadily swinging more here than he usually chooses to with this group. Seemingly excited by this prospect, Lovano and Frisell really turn it on, both taking extended solos that burn from start to finish. Frisell is a man possessed throughout his duet with Motian here, and amidst the onslaught of notes and sound effects, the playful Monk vocabulary that he incorporates suits his style perfectly, and reveals one of his chief influences.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Bill Frisell: Tales From The Far Side

Track

Tales from the Far Side

Artist

Bill Frisell (guitar)

CD

Quartet (Nonesuch 79401)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (guitar), Ron Miles (trumpet), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Eyvind Kang (violin).

Composed by Bill Frisell

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Recorded: Mobius Music, San Francisco, 1995

Frisell

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

A fan favorite and widespread critical success, Frisell’s foray into orchestral arrangements of his back catalog were first introduced on Quartet, featuring the strings of Frisell’s guitar and Kang’s violin and the brass of Miles’ cornet and Fowlkes’ trombone. You can tell how much fun Frisell had arranging these tunes, most of which were conceived as soundtracks to films, including this CD-opening homage to his good friend Gary Larson’s famous line of cartoons. An up-tempo, sweeping waltz in which the strings create a bed for the long-toned, two-horned melody, “Tales from the Far Side” retains and explores the sinister yet comical mood of Larson’s work. Bigger and bolder than most other Frisell arrangements, Quartet is a fun listen that, upon its release, the New York Times claimed, “just may be his masterpiece.”

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Bill Frisell: Gimme A Holler

Track

Gimme A Holler

Artist

Bill Frisell (acoustic guitar)

CD

Nashville (Nonesuch 79415-2 CD)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (acoustic guitar),

Jerry Douglas (dobro), Viktor Krauss (bass)

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Composed by Bill Frisell

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Recorded: September 1995 & October – November, 1996 at Sound Emporium, Nashville, Tennessee

Albumcoverbillfrisell-nashville

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

It’s ironic that Nashville, Bill Frisell’s farthest wander from recognizable jazz at this point in his career, recorded in 1995-1996 with some of bluegrass music’s finest players, was his first to earn him a Downbeat Critic’s Poll winner for Best Jazz Album of the Year and Best Guitarist of the Year in 1998. I suppose it’s one bold move complementing another – jazz’s principal magazine urging Frisell to continue focusing on simultaneous boundary obliteration and stylistic formation.

Frisell’s greatest achievement with Nashville may be that fans of country and jazz alike can both logically claim possession of the music heard throughout. This music, upon first listen, sounds like bluegrass, and with Jerry Douglass of Union Station fame trading licks with Frisell, it’s hard to argue that country music isn’t being played here. Yet Frisell’s own liner notes suggests another angle to view this music:

“Usually with my quartet, I write out my compositions. We start by reading the charts and then take a tune into different directions as we get familiar with playing it together. But I didn't present the music that way to the guys in Nashville. It was more of a challenge for me. I played the tunes and they all just reacted. It was exciting to see how quickly they learned the pieces.”

Executing a role reversal for the ages, Frisell rather ingeniously offered that somewhat of a jazz approach be taken to bluegrass music by infusing a collectively improvised, create-your-own-role atmosphere to a style where the dominating mindset is to know your role and stick to it. Hearing “Gimme a Holler” with this in mind completely changes the listening experience – it may sound like country, but the listening, the chance-taking, and the unpredicted moments of cohesion from quick interactions brings to mind the finest moments of pure jazz spontaneity.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Bill Frisell: What Do We Do?

Track

What Do We Do?

Artist

Bill Frisell (guitar)

CD

Blues Dream (Elektra/Asylum 79615)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (guitar), Greg Leisz (steel guitar, mandolin), Ron Miles (trumpet), Billy Drewes (alto sax), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone),

David Pilch (bass), Kenny Wollesen (drums)

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Composed by Bill Frisell

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Recorded: O’Henry Studios, Los Angeles, California, January 2000

Frisell

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Frisell clearly presented his intentions with the title of this 2000 release, honing in on the blues but surrounding it with hints of country, gospel, and jazz. The instrumentation lends itself perfectly to this examination – the standard guitar-bass-drums rhythm section, a horn trio of cornet, alto and trombone, and Frisell’s secret weapon in recent years – Greg Leisz, a multi-instrumentalist who further blurs the lines between country and blues with his work on mandolin, lap steel, pedal steel, and acoustic and electric guitars. “What Do We Do?” is an extended, carefully paced tune in 3/4 that begins with a skillfully harmonized melody from the horns under a light groove. As the melody concludes, the rhythm section introduces a stronger groove that ushers in Frisell’s improvisation. He builds his solo to an intense climax here – temporarily abandoning collective improvisation in order to rip through a powerful blues statement. An emotionally charged, unrestrained Frisell performance.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Bill Frisell: We Are Everywhere

Track

We Are Everywhere

Artist

Bill Frisell (acoustic and electric guitars)

CD

Intercontinentals (Nonesuch 79661)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (acoustic and electric guitars), Greg Leisz (pedal steel guitar, lap steel guitar, mandolin, resonator guitar),

Vinicius Cantuariua (acoustic guitar, drums, percussion, backing vocals), Sidiki Camara (percussion)

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Composed by Bill Frisell

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Recorded: Studio Litho, Seattle, Washington, 2002-2003

Frisell

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Frisell borrowed an approach from himself for his 2001 foray into world music, The Intercontinentals. As he successfully accomplished with 1998’s Nashville, the guitarist surrounded himself with both his regular partners and leading players from outside genres – only to throw all common rules to the curb and encourage his players to collectively improvise their way through each composition. The musical gamble worked again, this time with guests from Brazil, Macedonia and Mali. “We Are Everywhere” is one of the longer selections on this record, giving the listener a heightened sense of the time spent developing a group rapport with both each other and the song’s structure. The first few minutes are spent presenting themes and developing mood over Sidiki Camara’s hand drums and a droning bass line. As the musicians start taking it upon themselves to push the improvisation forward, each musician must realize that they are all thinking similarly, because the tune develops in a beautifully unprompted yet cooperative manner - as if it had been played hundreds of times before.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Bill Frisell: Goodnight Irene

Track

Goodnight Irene

Artist

Bill Frisell (guitar)

CD

East /West (Nonesuch 79863)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (guitar), Tony Scherr (bass), Kenny Wollesen (drums).

Composed by John A. Lomax and Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter

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Recorded: Village Vanguard, NYC, December 9-12, 2003

Albumcoverbillfrisell-east-west

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

The players in Bill Frisell’s longest standing current trio doubles as the rhythm section for the Sex Mob - bassist Tony Scherr, a fine guitarist and singer/songwriter in his own right, and drummer Kenny Wollesen, a veteran of the groups of John Zorn and Tom Waits, among countless others. The group allows (… or forces) Frisell to step into the spotlight and “play out” a bit more than in most of his other musical projects, which is a real treat considering the group’s massive repertoire and extraordinary rapport. On his website, Frisell summarized his feelings about the group: “My trio with Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen is probably the most flexible, spontaneous group I play with. […] I have the luxury of playing just about anything that comes into my head at any moment. This could be music from any of my albums, standard songs, folk songs, or whatever.” The no-frills guitar solo on “Goodnight Irene,” played in a mid-tempo 6/8, recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 2005, displays Frisell’s unconditional loyalty to melody – building in intensity but never abandoning the original storyline.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


Joe Henry: Civilians

Track

Civilians

Artist

Joe Henry (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Bill Frisell (electric guitar)

CD

Civilians (Anti 89860)

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Musicians:

Joe Henry (vocals, acoustic guitar), Bill Frisell (electric guitar), Greg Leisz (acoustic guitar, mandolin, lap steel guitar),

Patrick Warren (piano, organ, chamberlain), David Pilch (bass), Jay Bellerose (drums/percussion)

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Composed by Joe Henry

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Recorded: The Garfield House, CA, Jan/Feb 2007

Joehenry

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Bill Frisell has always been an in-demand session player, from his early ECM days to his extended stints with John Zorn and Paul Motian. Over the past decade, this reputation has not only increased but, just as Frisell’s own music, it has crossed over genre lines – where Frisell has lent his song-centric talents to countless singer-songwriters, just a few of which include: Lucinda Williams (West), Paul Simon (Surprise), Loudon Wainwright III (Here Come the Choppers), Elvis Costello (Deep Dead Blue), Vic Chestnut (Ghetto Bells), and Joe Henry’s 2004 release for the Anti label, Civilians.

[While Frisell is the star of the show here, a brief sidebar is owed to Joe Henry, one of the great unsung singer-songwriters of the past two decades who’s a jazz fan and owner of this impressive list of musicians who have contributed to his last handful of solo albums: Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman (live in studio!), Marc Ribot, Brad Mehldau, Brian Blade, Don Byron, and Jason Moran. Nowadays, Henry is busy as a producer, evidenced by two new recordings that have been reviewed on jazz.com: Allen Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot’s A Stranger Here. All great music to be explored.]

Of the abovementioned jazz-crossover guest spots offered by Henry, his smartest and most successful was inviting Bill Frisell to perform on all of his Civilians record. Alongside longtime Frisell collaborator Greg Leisz (guitar, pedal steel, mandolin), Frisell provides a master class in complementing a singer in a pop setting – leaving plenty of space but poking in to connect lyrical phrases at all of the perfect times. With another musician at the helm, this entire album could have taken the turn toward cluttered, but not with Frisell involved. On “Civilians,” Frisell (panned mid-left) creates a fun, twisted, dissonant little melody to match the chugging New Orleans-meets-Tom Waits groove. Note how he fuses this instrumental theme with Henry’s vocal to achieve unity from beginning to end.

Reviewer: Eric Novod


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